The Apalling Conditions at Australia's Nauru Immigration Camp Are the Tip of a Very Large Iceberg

The growing crisis of immigrant hatred in the West is spinning out of control.
Publish date:
February 8, 2016
politics, immigration, australia, Refugees

While the United States is struggling with anti-immigration rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump, the rest of the world is having some problems of its own — and the aggressive and at times actively violent nature of attitudes towards immigrants and refugees in Europe and Australia paints a chilling picture of what could lie ahead for the U.S.

Yesterday, huge numbers of Australians turned out in streets across the city in "Let Them Stay" rallies to support almost 300 refugees set for deportation to Nauru, a hellscape to the Northeast of Australia where a company called Transfield Services, on behalf of the government, operates a detention center.

Australia is a nation with a complicated racial and policy history that is quite different from the US, despite some superficial similarities (in both cases, Europeans took over continents inhabited by indigenous people, used repressive immigration laws to bar "outsiders" from entry, and devastated native populations, for example). But in some ways, as a fellow Western country, Australia provides instructive lessons for the US.

A steady flow of refugees, many from Southeast Asia, has been making its way to Australia since the 1970s, when the government established its first detention center for people fleeing wars, violence, and other oppressions. This took place within the context of the history of a nation established originally as a penal colony, established by Britons who in 1901 passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which came to be known as the "White Australia Policy."

In the 1980s, more refugees desperately sought help in Australia as the Soviet Union began collapsing and the Chinese government became more repressive. By the early 1990s, the nation was instituting mandatory detention for refugees, and despite wrangling over compassionate visa options, in the early 2000s, people began protesting the incredibly slow processing times and inhumane conditions at detention facilities with actions like lip sewing and hunger strikes.

Shortly thereafter, Australia began a policy of actively turning away refugees, insisting that they return to their home nations and refusing to allow them to even set foot on Australian soil — hence the establishment of detention camps like Nauru and Christmas Island. In 2002, the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees expressed concerns about the handling of asylum-seekers, but by then, the situation had already snowballed.

Policies on refugees shifted back and forth over the 2000s, depending on prime minister, but the trend was steadily downward. Involuntary repatriation, detention of children, and even moves like remanding refugees to neighboring Papua New Guinea before they had a chance to apply for asylum through Australia became the norm. More and more children ended up in detention, while more and more people died in detention. Movements like "I Ain't Afraid of No Boats," challenging regressive policies toward migrants, arose, along with "I'll Ride With You," a campaign to protect Australian Muslims after a brutal terrorist attack resulted in an escalation of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Now, 267 refugees face relocation from the Australian mainland to the camp at Nauru, despite rape allegations, with numerous detainees reporting systemic rapes of both women and children by guards, though officials hotly deny the charges. One Sri Lankan woman threatened to commit suicide if she was forced to return, while Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pleaded with the government to do the right thing, even posting a photo of himself taking refugees to the zoo.

First Dog on the Moon, a biting Australian political cartoonist, made an impassioned commentary about child rape and abuse on Nauru. The racist fringe that has always existed in Australia, some argue, is growing more aggressive, more prominent, and more powerful.

But Europe is facing similar problems. For decades, Europeans have been similarly hostile towards refugees, perhaps mostly infamously at Lampedusa, a refugee camp in Italy so horrific that it was a symbol of the problems of European policy before the flood of Syrian refugees thrust Lesbos into the spotlight, while Germany and other nations held supremacist rallies against immigrants and Denmark proposed seizing jewelry from refugees to pay for their detention. Last month, someone threw a grenade at a refugee hostel in Germany, though thankfully it didn't go off. Conditions across camps in nations like Hungary are abominable, while hateful rhetoric escalates.

Right-wing conservatism in Europe has been on the rise for quite some time, with both the UK and Germany being prime offenders, though Geert Wilders in the Netherlands certainly gave them a run for their money. The terrible 2015 terrorist attacks in France only fed this rhetoric, whipping up anti-refugee sentiment and endangering European Muslims. Given these conditions and the fact that thousands of immigrants die attempting to cross the Mediterranean annually in attempts to cross to Europe, it's fair to suggest that conditions in nations like Iraq, Libya, and Syria are truly dreadful.

And the United States hasn't been exempt from terrible approaches to refugee issues. Until very recently, the US dealt primarily with refugees from Central and South America — many of them, notably, fleeing conditions the US itself created by propping up military governments and supplying arms. Those immigrants have been met with increasing hostility at the border, with the US establishing mandatory detention camps of its own, including those with gruesome conditions where children are kept alongside adults, though the Obama Administration has pledged to eliminate so-called "family detention."

Meanwhile, rules explicitly designed to tackle prison rape also explicitly don't cover immigration detention facilities. Now, the US also faces a growing number of Syrian refugees asking for asylum within the US — again, fleeing a war that the US itself contributed to by supplying arms and a power vacuum to terrorist organizations.

Now, the US is facing its own moment in the anti-immigration spotlight, as the constant low current of hatred explodes into the popular landscape. While extremists have always hated immigration, including legal forms, candidates like Donald Trump are going mainstream because they feed into a deep-seated fear. White Americans think that Trump is the answer to their vicious hatred of refugees and immigrants, flocking to his rallies even as the GOP establishment itself went from taking a condemnatory approach to quietly supporting him.

The situations in Australia, across Europe, in the United States, are nothing new: Those in the know have been following anti-immigration sentiment and expressing concerns about it for decades. What's new is how mainstream they've become, that despite the very different underlying roots of political, social, and racial politics going on here, there's a growing synergy in terms of the tone of immigration rhetoric and its consequences.

People seeking refuge in nations they think of as potential safe havens are thrown into camps with filthy conditions, no health care, insufficient food, and abusive guards. They're turned away at the borders and threatened. They're attacked by the residents of the countries they're trying to enter and treated as a scourge. The fact that they risk everything to come to nations where they're treated this way is a profound testimony to the conditions in their home countries, and the fact that the West has responded with brutality rather than compassion is a poor testimony to our collective character.

There are dozens of Naurus out there. The mainstream might not know about them yet, or might not be willing to talk about them, but this is the price paid for tolerating and in some cases fostering abusive rhetoric about refugees and undocumented immigrants. The question is perhaps how long we want this to continue in our names. The failure of compassion in the West is a matter of deep shame that should be bringing all of us to the streets, not just the brave Australians who took a stand against their government yesterday.

Photo: Takver, Creative Commons.